Like last week, the upcoming ATP slate features two European tournaments on indoor hard courts and a South American tournament on outdoor red clay. Only one of the Big Four participated in last week’s action, but this week his archrival returns to the spotlight as well.
Rotterdam: Back in action for the first time since those consecutive five-setters in Melbourne, Federer prepares for a title defense closer to home soil. He often has produced his crispest tennis on indoor hard courts late in his career, and he finds himself near familiar victim Youzhny. Tested by rising star Raonic last year, Federer could meet another rising star in Jerzy Janowicz at the quarterfinal stage. Massive servers trouble him more than they once did, although Janowicz has looked less intimidating in the early events of 2013 than he did while reaching the Paris Indoors final last fall. Of further interest in this section is the first-round clash between doubles partners Benneteau and Llodra, both of whom should shine on this surface.
Continuing the French theme from Benneteau-Llodra, the second quarter lies in the shadow of two top-20 Frenchmen: the third-seeded Tsonga and the fifth-seeded Simon. No player of note would bar their routes to a quarterfinal, which their recently solid form suggests that they should reach. Both Frenchmen charted a course to the second week at the Australian Open, and Tsonga in particular excelled by extending Federer to a final set in their quarterfinal. His meeting with Simon should present a compelling contrast of styles, in which one would fancy the third seed’s chances on a surface that favors aggression.
Although both men enter the tournament unseeded, Tomic and Dimitrov offer the most notable storyline of the third quarter with the looming first-round clash between these two phenoms. Greatly celebrated for reaching the Brisbane final in January, the latter has not built upon that breakthrough but instead slipped back into the inconsistency that has slowed his progress. A hero on home soil again, Tomic recaptured much of the reputation that he lost with his 2012 antics by showing a more professional attitude to start 2013. Meanwhile, a strong week in Montpellier continued Gasquet’s strong start to the season and leaves him the favorite to reach the semifinal here. The fourth seed could repeat the Montpellier final against compatriot Benoit Paire in the second round.
Leaping from the lowest part of the draw is the first-round match between wildcard Gael Monfils and second seed Del Potro. While the former left Melbourne in mildly promising fashion, the latter fell well short of expectations in suffering a third-round exit to Jeremy Chardy. Del Potro can waste little time in recapturing his rhythm at a tournament where he finished runner-up to Federer last year, for Monfils’ two finals at the Paris Indoors prove his ability to succeed on this surface. Less likely to shine is the sixth-seeded Seppi, a player who prefers slow courts and lacks the firepower of either projected quarterfinal opponent.
Final: Tsonga vs. Del Potro
San Jose: In the last edition of this tournament, long a mainstay of Bay Area sports, Milos Raonic attempts to complete a title three-peat on the scene of his first trophy. Among the faster indoor hard courts on the calendar, San Jose will showcase a serve nearly unanswerable at its best. In the last two years, opponents struggled even to earn a break point against Raonic. Fresh from his Davis Cup heroics, last year’s top seed could repeat the 2012 final against Denis Istomin in the quarterfinals, or he might meet home hope Ryan Harrison in a rematch of a 2012 semifinal. Both of those men struggled to match Raonic hold for hold last year with their modest serves, and neither has taken a significant step forward since then.
Someone who can match the Canadian hold for hold, the third-seeded Sam Querrey seeks to continue building on his recent upward trend in the rankings. Returning to relevance midway through last year, Querrey plays his best on American soil and mirrored Raonic’s contributions last weekend by lifting Team USA past Brazil with two singles victories. He faces the possibility of consecutive matches against Australians, first the fading Lleyton Hewitt and then the surging Marinko Matosevic. Near his career-high ranking, the latter man will meet the teenage sensation Jack Sock, still in the process of refining his explosive serve and forehand.
If North Americans dominate the top half of the San Jose draw, a more European flavor emerges from the third quarter. Following his best season since his prime in the mid-2000s, Tommy Haas lurks near the edge of the top 20 after starting 2012 outside the top 200. Injuries and recurrences of his volatile temper hampered him in January, but expect his forecourt skills to flourish on a court where he can shorten points. Female fans would enjoy a quarterfinal between Haas and Fernando Verdasco, two slots below him in the rankings. Unfortunately for them, former finalist Ivo Karlovic might topple the Spanish lefty in the second round, although he lost to him here two years ago. Can wildcard Steve Johnson, who took Almagro to a fifth set at the Australian Open, build on that momentum to upset Dr. Ivo?
The only man in the ATP shorter than Karlovic, the second-seeded Isner needs to build momentum much more urgently than Johnson, for he defends finalist points at Indian Wells. Still the top-ranked American man by a small margin over Querrey, Isner withdrew from the Australian Open with a knee injury and looked unimpressive in Davis Cup last weekend. No player in his vicinity looks like a convincing dark horse, however, with the most notable resistance coming from Xavier Malisse. Otherwise, this section features a handful of promising-but-not-quite-there-yet figures like Vasek Pospisil and Evgeny Donskoy, the latter of whom defeated Youzhny in Melbourne.
Final: Querrey vs. Verdasco
Sao Paulo: In a draw that greatly resembles Vina del Mar last week, Nadal again shares a half with Jeremy Chardy amid a collection of players from South America and southern Europe. Few Spaniards have shown the determination to challenge Rafa on his favored red clay, and Ruben Ramirez Hidalgo should prove no exception. One of the few Spanish journeymen to defeat him on any surface, Guillermo Garcia-Lopez could meet the man whom he defeated in Bangkok at the quarterfinal stage, although Vina del Mar semifinalist Carlos Berlocq seems more plausible. Yet another Spaniard, the eighth-seeded Albert Ramos, opens against Garcia-Lopez.
Splitting his two Davis Cup rubbers in the United States, Thomaz Bellucci transitions back to his homeland and a friendlier surface for his traditional lefty game. The fifth-seeded Brazilian would meet Chardy in the quarterfinals with no legitimate threat between them. Fellow Brazilian Ricardo Mello, known better for his doubles success, received not only a wildcard but a winnable opening match as a reward for his victory over the Bryans in Davis Cup. Facing aging Federer-killer Volandri is Vina del Mar quarterfinalist Daniel Gimeno-Traver, who mustered some decent resistance to Rafa last week.
World #15 Monaco looked nearly certain to meet Nadal in the Vina del Mar final until the unheralded Guillaume Rufin upset him, only to issue a walkover a round later. At least the Argentine enjoyed accompanying Nadal through the doubles draw, which gave him plenty of opportunities to refine his clay skills before this second opportunity. A former top-10 player, Spanish veteran Tommy Robredo could become Monaco’s first opponent in a grinding match of counterpunchers who rarely miss. Cast from a similar mold is Robredo’s compatriot Albert Montanes, situated near the seventh-seeded Pablo Andujar. The latter must start the tournament on a high note to escape Santiago Giraldo, a Colombian who has upset much more notable players on clay before.
The key difference between the draws in Vina del Mar and Sao Paulo, Nicolas Almagro hopes to rebound from a memorable fortnight in Melbourne. While he reached an Australian Open quarterfinal, he may need time to forget his repeated inability to finish off Ferrer there and perhaps also to recover from a leg injury. Like Nadal, though, Almagro will find the clay accommodating to his ailing body, and he has won a set from Rafa on the surface before. Opening against surprise Vina del Mar champion Horacio Zeballos, he finds himself near the most dangerous unseeded player in the draw, David Nalbandian. The grouchy gaucho languishes in a semi-retirement from which he emerges just often enough to remain relevant, and a player lacking in fitness, confidence, or both would seem plausible prey. Nalbandian has tested Nadal severely before, even during his decline, but can he string together the solid efforts necessary to produce that tantalizing final?
Final: Nadal vs. Almagro
Check out the companion preview of the WTA Premier Five tournament in Doha, and return on Friday for the next entry in my column.
By Yeshayahu Ginsburg
The favorites and top seeds all got through their second-round matches without much drama. David Ferrer was pushed by a powerful Tim Smyczek, who really began showing his true potential in the match. Still, Ferrer got through in four sets as he was just too solid and consistent for the young American.
Federer, Djokovic, Murray, Tsonga, Del Potro, and Berdych all took care of overmatched opponents with relative ease as well. None of these seven challengers for the title has begun to show any real cracks in the armor yet, though Tsonga did not play his best match. Then again, he really didn’t need to to beat Go Soeda in straight sets. Del Potro still looked like the most dominant of the group, though, for whatever that’s worth.
Who Looked Good
Evgeny Donskoy: Donskoy is an up-and-coming strong young player. He has mostly stuck to Challengers his entire career and has brought his ranking up into the 80s with a good run to end last year. But he is going to be moving up to the main tour now. In his first ever Grand Slam main draw, he has now reached the third round with his gritty performance to get past Mikhail Youzhny. Donskoy only had one tour-level win before this Australian Open, but he will have plenty more opportunities now as his new ranking will get him into most ATP 250 and 500 level tournaments.
Jerzy Janowicz: How does beating Somdev Devvarman in 5 sets net you a spot in this section? It’s because Janowicz’s comeback win over the former NCAA champion showed us something that we didn’t know about him. Janowicz was only a good young Challenger player with potential until an epic run at last year’s Masters 1000 event in Bercy (which he had to qualify just to get into) vaulted him into the top 30. This comeback win, which took fight and mental fortitude, shows us that Jerzy could be near the top of the rankings for a long time.
Ricardas Berankis: After last round, I said that if Florian Mayer played as poorly against Berankis as he did against Rhyne Williams that he would lose this match. Now, though, it really wouldn’t have mattered. Berankis was absolutely on fire this match. His movement was superb, even in the blazing heat, and his ballstriking was lethal. The 22-year-old qualifier looks to be in the best form of his young career and it will be very interesting to see what he can do against Andy Murray in the next round. No matter what, though, this will be quite a learning experience for him.
Richard Gasquet: Gasquet is nothing short of an enigma. There are times where he actually feels like a top 5 player and there are times where he doesn’t belong in the top 100. He has so much power, not to mention the world’s best backhand, yet plays far too far behind the baseline. Still, his dismantling of Alejandro Falla was impressive. Gasquet is clicking on all cylinders so far early in this tournament. Let’s see if he can keep it up while facing the other top players in the coming rounds.
Who Looked Bad
Janko Tipsarevic: Tipsarevic came to play in his first-round match against Lleyton Hewitt. He hit the ball hard and clean and really never bowed to the pressure. His second-round match was the exact opposite. Lacko played well and fought hard, but Janko just wasn’t the same as he had been in the first round. If he had approached this match with the same intensity as his first, it wouldn’t have been this close. There was just a little bit missing from Tipsarevic’s game that he will need to find again moving forward to go deep in this tournament.
Bernard Tomic: Okay, this paragraph won’t be fair to Tomic. He didn’t play that poorly. This is more of a critique on the expectations we put on him. Yes, he has talent. But he is still not a top player yet. All he has in his career is one great run at Wimbledon. Everyone treats hid like—and expects him to be—one of those guys knocking on the door right outside the Big 4. But he’s not. At least, not yet..
Match of the Round
Though Gael Monfils and Yen-Hsun Lu made me think about putting them here, once again, the most exciting match this round was far from the highest quality. And, once again, it was really the crowd that put this match over the top. Blaz Kavcic and James Duckworth battled for nearly five hours in the blazing heat. Both played well, though Kavcic was clearly the superior player for much of the match. Still, Duckworth fought back with the crowd behind him to take the fourth set. With the crowd making duck sounds and chanting in support of the young Australian, the match felt much more like a Davis Cup rubber than a Grand Slam match. Kavcic served for the match at 5-3 in the fifth but was broken to 30 (he double-faulted twice in a row at 30-30), to massive celebration by Duckworth and the crowd. Eventually, after both players began cramping up, Kavcic took his fifth match point to win the fifth set 10-8, much to the dismay of the crowd. Still, it was a close and exciting match throughout and was an honest joy to watch.